Crude, slippery arguments

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By Hakeem Baba-Ahmad

“Politics offers yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems.”—Marshall McLuhan

The arguments over the legality and propriety of the onshore-offshore dichotomy are likely to get louder and more involving in the next few months. It is safe to assume that this issue will feed existing faultlines in the nation, and will quite probably play a pivotal role in determining security issues around oil and gas, and even the 2015 elections.

It is even safer to assume that the issue is most likely to be obfuscated by existing prejudices, deliberate and emotive misrepresentation and spectacular grandstanding. This is one issue that needs very careful handling, but will most likely be left to fester and infect the polity by a leadership whose cup of unresolved issues is already full.

Not long after the Governors of Kano and Niger states signaled an intention to open up the resource control controversy, or more specifically the onshore-offshore dichotomy because the current revenue sharing formula it has created is unjust, inequitable and unacceptable, threats and dire warnings began to emanate from oil-producing areas.

Tension rose with language reserved for times of war. South-South leaders warned the “North” to back off. The North was reminded of all the struggle it took for oil-producing states to get to where they are; and how their people will fight to keep what they have or fight to death doing that.

Others said they will obliterate the entire oil and gas asset if one kobo of what the communities earn is directed away to parasitic parts of the nation which are too lazy and greedy; and who will not be content with self-inflicted poverty and backwardness.

Just when the temperature was rising to alarming levels, with much of the heat coming from the oil-producing areas, President Goodluck Jonathan wades in with a warning that the issues around the onshore-offshore dichotomy are settled for good; and the nation should move on.

If the President thought his warming would calm nerves and settle issues, he was wrong. The other side saw his intervention as predictable nepotism, and a play to a gallery which is only precariously-balanced.

Allusions were made to weighty questions regarding the validity of the National Assembly’s decision to abolish the onshore-offshore dichotomy in 2004 after the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2002 which upheld the dichotomy.

Governor of Rivers State then raised the tempo a bit with a thinly-veiled threat that re-opening the issue will re-ignite violent crimes and massive destruction of oil and gas assets and activities which had been clothed under the polite term of militancy.

If anyone thought Northern governors lack too little clout to sustain a strong onslaught on the dichotomy, given their rather tenuous hold on their political terrain, they did not reckon with Governor of Kwara State, who rumbled in with his claim that the case for revisiting the dichotomy is well and truly alive.

Abdul-Fattah Ahmed said the revenue derived by littoral states from products in the high seas belong to all Nigerians, and littoral states are receiving funds that they do not deserve.

It now looks as if this issue will assume a dimension far beyond mere legal arguments. The Federal Government’s hand has been played by President Jonathan, so it is already in its own corner of the ring.

The National Assembly is unlikely to reverse itself, even with a majority of members from the North, on an issue it decided with extremely conflicting results. Littoral states who have enjoyed unprecedented affluence (at least at the levels of their leaders) are unlikely to just roll over and concede that they are threatening a fragile federation by impoverishing parts of it with their greed. They will remind the nation of the saying that it is easier to give meat to the lion than take it away from him.

But then the demand for a review of the dichotomy will not abate or go away either. Many states, especially in the North, complain that they are barely managing to pay for basic services with their share of revenue from federation accounts, most of which is made up of proceeds from oil and gas.

They could bury their faces in shame over their profligacy (one said he fed the poor with N2.5 billion in the last one month, and many are spending hundreds of millions sending political cronies to Hajj and Jerusalem) and unbridled corruption, but they will not.

They will make the case that the North is being impoverished by security challenges which the Federal Government should deal with. They will demand for equity and fairness in resource allocation to build and rehabilitate infrastructure, to train young people and give them skills; to develop agriculture and solid minerals and arrest the de-industrialization of the North.

They will not beg for these. They will demand them as rights. They will mobilize public opinion, legislators, the media and the law to make their cases.

But they will fail to even make a dent on the determination of littoral states to keep what they already have, rightly or wrongly. They will, instead, generate a reaction on the other side that will pitch the nation in another conflict that will sap its energy and divert its attention from serious challenges posed by a stubborn insurgency, widespread criminal activities and corruption eating at the fabric of the Nigerian state.

The biggest problem, however, is the absence of political institutions which could limit this potential damage. The PDP’s home is the North and South-South, the very antagonists in this battle. Yet, it is incapable of exercising any mediating influence. The Presidency is already part of the problem. Governors are the combatants. The judiciary has already had its say on the matter.

And all these, over a matter that should involve Nigerians in a more systematic and organic manner. Our leaders are fighting over huge assets, while we get crumbs and pay for the consequences of their greed. Neither the governors of the South-South nor the North will survive the simplest scrutiny in terms of how they use our resources from oil and gas.

Yet they will ask us to go to war over how much is allocated to their governments. The Federal Government does not have the higher moral or political ground either. It leads in waste and profligacy, and the mind-boggling exposés on corruption around its operations suggest that its share of the revenue is more stolen then used.

Some very difficult compromises will need to be made, if we are to avoid a potentially disruptive future. The littoral states cannot continue to keep revenue derived from high seas which are the property of every Nigerian.

They must be made to see the injustice in this, as people who have themselves been victims of injustice in the past. Land-based minerals and other products should be made to benefit communities in which they are found, and  all parts of the nation should concentrate on what God endowed them with, rather than what others have.

We need to revisit the manner we raise and allocate revenues to all three tiers of government, and how to make our leaders more accountable.

The question is, who would do all these, since all the people involved in these potentially damaging quarrels are the very sources of the problems?

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